Wednesday, April 23, 2014

10 Acre Woods Newest Beekeeper

6 years ago when I walked into my first Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Club meeting I knew I was home.  Men and women of all ages and shapes, dressed in overalls or jeans, flannel shirts and boots with unkept hair. I had found my people. I didn't know a thing about keeping bees other than it was a hobby meant for me. Those people were my lifeline those first few years. I depended on their guidance, wisdom and kindness for my every move. Heck, I still depend on them! I wasn't sure I would ever become a real beekeeper with an ability to play it forward and give back to another new bee keeper.

Here I am now, overseeing two bee yards. I no longer fumble through the equipment catalog wondering what the heck the difference is between a brood box and super. I know just what to order. I  no longer wonder if I will ever know the difference between a queen, a worker or a drone. Its second nature to me. I no longer ponder over the endless questions that consumed me those first few years. For the most part,  I get it now. I have some bee juju to share and finally someone to share it with.

My brother-in-law Charlie was always interested in the bees, initially I think it was the honey that lured him in but now he's the owner of a 10 acre farm in Hamburg Mn embarking on a Permiculture adventure and he is interested in sustainability as a way of life. I admit openly that I came to this adventure in hopes of tempering my hyper active spirit, of finding a way to lead a more mindful, deliberate and contemplative life. I am still on that journey, my hyper active spirit ebbs and flows depending on the state of the bees. I have however found the keeping of the bees a way toward a more mindful existence. It has also lead to one of my most valued relationships in life, the friendship I have with my beekeeping partner, Paula. I couldn't do this without her. I didn't come to this with honey or sustainability in mind. It occurred to me that if I could give back to the planet in some small way through pollinating a little speck of the earth, that would be nice. Now, 6 years later I am in a position to give back to Charlie what was so generously given to me by countless other bee keepers. He is already off to a good start with a keen eye and knack for this crazy hobby. He is a natural and I am betting he will eventually manage the 10 Acre Woods apiary on his own, if he wants. 

Charlie invited me to keep bees on the farm almost immediately. I am not sure if he intended to become a beekeeper himself but he is well on his way. For months now he has been working on a design for the bee yard, consistent with the principals of Permiculture. After I scoped out the property last fall we decided on a location for the bee yard. Charlie got to work this spring creating a Hügelkultur around the perimeter of the bee yard. Hügeklutur is a design concept using layering as a principal and is the practice of burying large volumes of wood to increase soil water retention. The porous structure of the wood acts as a sponge when decomposing underground. Charlie dug down about 5 feet in a circle around the the bee yard, filled the dugout with rotted wood, mounded the dirt back up, spread bee friendly plant seed on the mound, including clover, covered the mound with hay and then placed large sticks on top. The seeds will sprout through the hay and sticks and provide a rich source of pollen and nectar for the bees.  The structure will also bee a good wind block and help protect the hives in the winter. He is also building a wooden arbor at the passageway to the bee yard which will also have some kind of bee friendly vines. It is already visually stunning. I can't imagine when the Hügelkutur and arbor are in full bloom.

The day the bees arrive is always one my most favorite days of the year. I look forward to it all winter long. This year it took longer than usual for the bees to arrive and I was getting edgy and worried. Finally last Wednesday they arrived and we put two of four new packages of bees into hives at Charlie's farm, 10 Acre Woods. The packages seemed healthy. It was a cold, windy day and it was difficult getting our queens out. We inadvertently killed a queen during the installation of Charlie's Crazy Comb. I don't fret about these mishaps anymore. I know exactly what needs to be done to remedy the situation. Charlie kept his eye on the hives over the next few days while we waited for the arrival of a new queen. He would report in a few times a day providing important observations. Within two days it was clear we had a problem in the queen less hive. The girls were lethargic, not foraging and clustered, even as the weather warmed up. When I finally arrived back on the farm 5 days later with a new queen we discovered the majority of the bees in the hive were dead, piled up at the bottom of the hive. I was heart sick, simply devastate. What had gone wrong? I'd never seen such a think in all my years of beekeeping. I have mulled it over and over, talked to my people and likely the bees had a particular strain of nosema, an intestinal disease that infects bees, that kills them in a matter of days. It is also possible that the bees starved to death. I wasn't attentive to how much syrup was left in the bee cage feeder can. Maybe it was full, defective and the bees hadn't had any nutrition for a week. I don't know for sure. We slipped the cage with the new queen into the hive and closed it up. Charlie reports more activity coming out the hive in the past few days, but frankly I don't have much hope for them. There wasn't but a frame or two of bees who won't be able to build up enough comb quickly enough for a healthy queen.

The second hive on that property, Andrea's Drone Den seems strong and active and the bees are bringing in pollen. I am not sure where they getting pollen from, we barley have a hint of budding but they found something. I just hope it isn't a stash of sawdust, they have been know to hoard that when nothing else is available. I will go back to the farm over the weekend to make sure the new queen in Charlies' Crazy Comb has been released and then next Wednesday we will do our first inspection, see if the girls are building comb and if the queen is laying. These are tense times for a beekeeper. So much is at stake and things can go wrong.

We also installed two hives in our bee yard in Northfield. I have not been back there yet. It is cold again here now and a three day rain cloud has settled overhead. The bees are clustering at night and not out much when it rains so no point in checking them. I don't like to go in and disrupt the bees until the queen has had time to start laying.

I had two more packaged that were originally going to be delivered this weekend, another hive for each bee yard, 6 hives in all. My supplier called two days ago to delay the shipment until May 17th, cold and rain in Kentucky has not been kind to bee keepers, especially those who raise queens. I am out of my mind about it, May 17th is just way too late to start a new package of bees in Minnesota. Our season is short and I am starting out on foundation this year, no comb. It isn't likely that bees placed on May 17th will have time to build 3 brood boxes of comb let alone store enough honey for their own winter needs. Curses. I quickly teamed up with my dear beekeeping friend Patty who found us some Nuc's, little nucleus colonies of bees, a smaller version of a normal beehive with 5 combed out frames full of bees and brood and a queen. I am not sure why we haven't done this before but we haven't. I am totally jazzed. The Nuc's will arrive around the 6th of May. I am getting two, one for each bee yard.  In the meantime I need to shore up my situation in both bee yards. I have to decide on Monday if I still want the delivery on May 17th. I am not one to give up bees but I am short on equipment this year and if I end up with 6 viable hives that is enough. However, I can't predict how Charlie's Crazy Comb is going to do and we could always end up with some other crazy problem in a hive so I hate to turn down bees. I don't know how I will land on this, somewhere between 6-8 hives, all first year hives so it is unlikely we will get any honey.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bee Season Opener

It has been a rough week for me. After a month of of scraping, cleaning, repairing and replacing equipment we finally staged the bee yards last week in anticipation of four new packages arriving on Monday. After 5 years of ordering bees from Kentucky we trusted the routine. The bees ship on Saturday and they arrive on Monday. This routine has repeated itself over and over.

I was particularly excited about the arrival this year as Monday was the first day of Passover. It felt sacred and special. Monday came and went without the arrival of the bees. I was disappointed but quickly regrouped with my beekeeping partners. They would come on Tuesday.

Tuesday came and went, no bees. After numerous conversations with the post office and our supplier I finally got the tracking number for the bees. In a way no one else is possibly capable of, I spent the better part of 6 hours Tuesday hitting the refresh button on the USPS tracking site hoping to get some news. Admittedly I went to a place of panic. I don't care to share the details, just trust me. I am prone to worry and I go to worst case scenarios easily. In my head the bees were all dead and no replacement bees would be had. I would be looking at a summer without bees, something I simply couldn't face. Before the end of the day I secured a top secret number to reach a very compassionate employee at the post office who had spent the better part of Tuesday trying to help me locate our bees. She offered to find a way to have me pick them up Tuesday evening at the airport but reminded me that it was tax day and going to the airport might be a nightmare.

With my secrete number in hand on Wednesday morning I called Leona at 6:45. The bees had arrived. I picked up Paula and off we went, unsure about what kind of shape they would be in. All four packages were in good condition. Two of them had a pile of dead bees on the bottom but nothing more than usual. I was a little dumbfounded but grateful.

It was a gloomy, cold and windy day. The race was on to get these girls in their homes before the wintry mix began. We headed to 10 Acre Woods, the farm of my brother-in-law and new beekeeper Charlie to situate two of the packages. Charlie has gone to great lengths to create a beautiful apiary area on the farm. I will share more about that in a later post.

The packages went in easily but the queen releases were another story. We seem prone to queen drama at Flight of The Turquoise Apiary. We began with Andrea's Drone Den. The queen release was impossible, she simply didn't want to leave the cage. Paula set the cage down in the pile of the bees and closed up the hive, hoping that she would just go out and we could remove the cage after managing the second package. It seemed like a reasonable idea. We closed up the hive and moved on to the second hive, Charlie's Crazy Comb. Again, the bees went in easily enough and Paula released the queen, more easily this time. We returned to the Andrea's Drone Den to retrieve the queen cage. The girls, having already readily accepted the queen due to the longer than normal journey had taken over the cage. It was impossible to tell if the queen had wandered out so I had to spend a great deal of time and effort shaking the queen cage and trying to get the workers off so I could see that she was gone. Meanwhile Paula discovered a queen on her glove. Holy hell. Where had she come from? Which queen was she? We all agreed it seemed most likely she was from Charlie's Crazy Comb.

I didn't get a good look at her but Paula thought she was injured. Paula put her in Charlie's Crazy Comb. If she is injured or sick the bees will kill her. They won't tolerate a less than perfect queen. So I have ordered two more queens, one for Charlie's Crazy Comb, assuming she needs to be replaced and another for Andrea's Drone Den, in the event that the queen on Paula's hand was some how from that hive. Oh the crazy queen drama. Hopefully the queens will arrive on Friday or Saturday and we can figure out our situation on Sunday or Monday. We are starting on foundation so it isn't going to be easy to trouble shoot. If we were on comb the queen would be easier to locate because she would be able to start laying immediately. Now she has to wait for the workers to build comb. Unfortunately it is going to be wicked cold for the next few days so the bees will probably cluster and not build much comb making it even harder for us.

The packages went in easily down in the Northfield Apiary and we have another package, maybe two more coming in a few weeks to complete that location.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Chickens and Bee Wax

Last Sunday we went to Charlie's farm in Hamburg MN, where Flight of The Turquoise Bee Apiary will set up a second bee yard this summer. Charlie has recently procured 10 hens and two roosters. Assuming female farmers I was a farmers wife in one of my past lives. The chicken coop could easily become a second playground for me. The hens were beautiful, the roosters handsome. I know nothing of the the art of keeping chickens but I want to learn. I love nothing better than being in the bee yard and hearing the crow of a rooster in the early morning, the wet dew on the ground, the sun rising and  the hope of finding our queens. I imagine heading in to the chicken coop in hopes of finding an egg or two is somewhat the same. I am looking forward to mingling bees with chickens.

I  spent two days this week in the bee room trying to harvest wax from our old frames. During our last visit to the bee yard, the visit were we discovered total carnage we brought back a few boxes of frames. I had no idea how difficult it would be to pull the wax off some of these frames. In fact some of the wax is so hard and packed with dead bees and old tacky pollen that I gave up. I am stymied as to why the wax is so tough and impossible to remove. I see a great deal of pollen, lots of dead bees and some old unhatched brood but damn I can't get some of the wax pulled to save my soul. It certainly confirms my suspicion that the wax is not habitable for the bees. I worked on about 24 frames and probably have a dozen left to go. Worse though is this is only a fraction of what is sitting down in the bee yard. There must be at least 8 more boxes waiting for us. Frankly its all a bit overwhelming. Although it is hard work I enjoy being up to my elbows in sticky wax.

I spend some time organizing, getting all the harvested frames separated from those that still need work and getting the wax all in one box but the amount of work to be done is staggering. Hopefully the temperature will warm up and I can get back down to the bee yard and pick up more boxes. Every single frame needs to be inspected, scraped clean and either kept or tossed, depending on the condition of the frame. Every single box needs to be scrapped and painted. Another bee bench needs to be made and a leveler for the new yard needs to be made. The equipment needs to be inventoried and new equipment ordered. Today, I just dented the work load.

This is about 1/3 of the wax I have harvested so far. Today's wax was so full of dead bees and pollen that I am not sure how easy it will be for Paula to work with but I will turn all of it over to her for candles. I am always amazed by how much wax we have and then it melts down to a few candles.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Polar Vortex Cranberry Mocktail

In between harvesting wax and cleaning up the bee equipment I am puttering in the kitchen.

Since getting sober some 25 years ago I am still in constant search for the perfect party drink. I love my tonic water but sometimes a girl needs something a little special to flaunt and offer her guests during a dinner party especially when she isn't serving alcohol. We lean towards an alcohol free house, rarely offering our guests alcohol. If we want to entertain with booze we do it outside the house. It just keeps the house safe. On the rare occasion you find yourself sipping wine or enjoying a beer at our house its because you came with a bottle in hand. I am not crazy sober, its just that I don't comprehend marginal interest in alcohol. Excess is the story of my life. So we play it safe around here.

I love to wow my guest with fun non alcoholic drinks. One of my summer favorites is a concoction of passion fruit puree and simple syrup with fresh lime and lemon juice.  In the winter I gravitate toward cranberry.

Last week we had a group of Tina's colleagues over for a special dinner. They are the intellectual power house women of the college but they don't get out out much. Something about needy husbands and helpless children.  Its the second time they have come up from Northfield, MN for an evening of fun. Last May I blew them away with my Passionade and and Indian dinner that they are still talking about. I knew that meal would be hard to beat. I had to start with another signature drink.

I started with two bags of fresh cranberries, some fresh ginger a few whole cloves and a cinnamon stick and the next thing I knew I had a brilliant cranberry syrup that I topped off with a splash of club soda.  Make this, now. Thank me later. The ginger is just enough to give it a fabulous kick.

Polar Vortex Cranberry Mocktail

12 ounces fresh or frozen cranberry
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar plus extra for dusting cranberries
knob of fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
a few whole cloves
club soda

Combine water and sugar and simmer over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add cranberries. Peel and grate ginger into cranberries. Transfer to an air tight container and add a cinnamon stick and cloves. Refrigerate for about 24 hours.

 After allowing cranberry, ginger and cinnamon to seep strain and reserve the syrup in a jar. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves from the cranberries. Remove some of the cranberries to use as a garnish.

Process the rest of the cranberries through a juicer or fine mesh strainer to get juice.

Add this juice to the syrup. Cover jar of syrup and store in fridge until ready to use. Take remaining cranberries and toss them in sugar to lightly coat. Allow them to dry

When ready to serve put two or three sugar dusted cranberries on a pick. Fill a lovely glass with ice. Pour two to three ounces cranberry syrup over ice, top with club soda and mix. Serve with pick of sugar dusted cranberries on the side.

Your welcome!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dead Outs in The Polar Vortex

It is a beekeepers worst fear. Dead outs. We have three of them. All three colonies in the top box, none of them looked like they broke the cluster. We didn't leave much honey but it seems that would not have mattered. In at least one of the hives we found the dead bees were situated right next to a large rim of honey. They were simply too cold to move to the honey sources and starved to death.

It has been bitter cold here with temps dropping into the -60 degrees with the wind chill factor for several nights last week. I had very little hope that we would find any thriving colonies. Still it makes one very sad. I try to think of the silver linings, an opportunity to clean equipment, get rid of old comb and start new. Still, I am sad and as silly as it sounds I wonder what I could have done differently to save them. I know I don't have magical powers to fight old man winter but I can't shake the "bad beekeeper" feeling.

This is what it looks like to clean out the hive, a very grim sight indeed. We wanted to scatter as many of the dead bees as we could on the ground, the bees will make for good compost in the spring. We only got through the top two boxes of this hive and left a box full of bees to deal with later. Altogether we took four boxes down.

So far I have harvested about 20 brood frames of old comb. Comb which I believe it too old to keep using. It is dry, brittle and packed with pollen that probably harbors pesticide. That pollen is what the nurse bees feed the brood. I don't want my bees getting toxic pesticide from the get go. So, for the first time we are pulling all the wax from the brood frames and in some instances even getting rid of the frames. It's been five years. This housekeeping measure is long over due. I am guessing I have gotten through about half the frames and have filled a very large bin with wax to make candles. I like knowing the wax won't go to waste.

Winter, usually it is a time for the beekeeper to wait. We wait patiently to see who will survive the cold.  The work room is filled with the scent of comb. We can dip beeswax candles, stir honey into yogurt, inventory and clean equipment but mostly we wait to see. It can be hard, all that waiting, not knowing.

 For me the waiting is over. I know what I face, total replacement. I am spending hours tinkering with equipment, reorganizing, making lists and making strategies for two bee yards this spring. There is new equipment to be ordered, old equipment to be repaired and painted and the opportunity to be still and be quite and listen. These are good days even if the bees are gone.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Flight of The Turquoise Bee Apiary is Expanding

It's official. The Flight of The Turquoise Bee Apiary is expanding. Our second location is about an hour west of St. Paul, in Hamburg, MN. It is a lovely 10 acre  Permaculture Farm. Our host, "Farmer Charlie" is my brother-in-law. Charlie purchased this beautiful historic farm complete with a granary, a silo and Elizabeth, a tractor he brought back to life.

I don't know much about permaculture other than knowing it is a way of designing systems and ways of interaction that support the natural rhythms and patterns of the elements of those systems. As such, "Bees are the embodiment of the permaculture principle of concentrating limited resources - foraging large territories, and extracting sweet essence from the impoverished ecosystems that surround most of us, regardless of climate of location. Bees essentially feed themselves and through pollination, feed us, other creatures and the soil." Their honey is delicious, anti-bacterial, full of enzymes, minerals and complex sugars and is the best burn ointment. Propolis can be used for infections, sore throats, care of gums and teeth and treatment of sulfurs. Bees wax is ideal for candles, salve, and lip balm. Bee venom can stimulate the auto-immune system and ease arthritis. Keeping bees inherently increases our connection with the land, the seasons, local economy and food production. So, we have been invited to keep bees at the farm and kick off the permaculture endeavor. 

When I first visited the farm I was struck by how much clover was on the property and of course bees love clover so I knew it would be an ideal spot for some bees. Additionally Charlie has always been interested in our beekeeping adventure, visiting The Flight of The Turquoise Bee Apiary with  fearless fascination, an essential ingredient to hosting hives.

Right now the farm is blanketed in snow. But come Spring time it will be a sunny, spacious place for some Italian girls and their Queen. I ordered two new packages for the farm today and after the first of the year I will get equipment ordered, painted and set up. We are contemplating dabbling in harvesting comb honey this year which is not something we have done officially. If it seems like the girls on the farm like their nutritional sources and have potential for good production then we might just invest in a Ross Comb Super.

In the meantime we are nurturing three colonies of bees in Northfield who just might have the gumption to make it through the winter. If so we will have two new hives in Northfeild, and three overwintered hives that might need splits. If that's the case we will be way over our heads in managing our little hobby apiaries. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fall check up!

Oh my goodness! Paula and I went to check on the bees today and we have three really strong healthy colonies. Colleen's Royal Ruckus, The Turquoise Bee and Katrina's Drone Den, all packed with bees in all three boxes. We have had an amazing Indian summer, warm days even up until now. Lots of local beekeepers are reporting loads of pollen coming into their hives. I didn't see the bees bringing any pollen in today but there was lots of new pollen in the top boxes of all three hives. The finding is sort of a mixed bag for us as we have a major problem with the comb in our brood boxes, all of them.

You see in our over zealous effort to keep recycling our combed out brood box frames we seemed to have overdone it by at least a year. I didn't realize that while reusing comb is a good idea, it is only good for two, maybe three years. Our comb is four years old. You see if the bees are storing pollen collected from anything treated with pesticide then they are storing toxic waste in the hive which is what they feed the brood. Additionally the comb gets brittle and old. Frankly I think this may have been part of our problem this year with a poor honey harvest. Well that and the long cold wet spring and summer. In a perfect world our plan was to remove all those frames and start anew next year but I can't see my way to figuring out how to do this with hives that are busting at the seems with bees. Perhaps in a month or so the population will die down and we can do some of the replacement work. Otherwise we will have wait until spring and figure it all out then.

The sad news is that Patrick's Pollinator has died. When we reached the bee yard it was evident that something wasn't right. There was a flurry of activity outside every hive except for Patrick's Pollinator. On closer inspection we found a pile of dead bees outside the hive and evidence of Nosema, a disease that causes dysentery or bee diarrhea if you will. We saw streaks of bee waste outside on the top box of the hive which is sort of a dead give away. 

We have not had nosema before so it is sort of a bummer to find it now. It is contagious and it contaminates the comb so we took apart the hive today and will get rid of all the comb. Once we got to the bottom of the box we found a large pile of dead bees and what looks like dead larva but we are not sure.

This is  never ending adventure in which we learn something new with every visit to the bee yard. It continues to be full of astonishing surprises, utter disappointments but mostly giddy joy. We put all our mouse guards in place and don't plan to visit again until mid november. Hopefully by then we can remove the top brood boxes off Colleen's Royal Ruckus and Kattrina's Drone Den and make an effort to over winter these girls.